Bankruptcies, scofflaws and aldermen: differentiated by a common language

Chris Game

It must have happened to you. You come across a word for, as far as you’re aware, the first time in your life, you learn its meaning, and then read or hear it again in a quite different context just a few days later.

It’s possibly just one of those exaggerated coincidences – like the birthday paradox of needing only 23 people in a room to have better than even odds of two of them sharing a birthday. But, even if it is, my recent experience still struck me as worth sharing in a blog – especially as I rather like the word in question, and without too much contortion can give it a local government slant.

I’ve just returned from an academic conference in Chicago. The paper I presented was mainly about English local government finance, but part of it touched on the usage and meaning of words – in this case BANKRUPTCY; and no, that’s not the ‘new’ word I’ve just discovered!  I wanted to explain why English local authorities, no matter how financially stressed, would not be going bankrupt in the same way as Detroit and several other American cities have done over the past couple of years – and that Chicago itself conceivably could too, were the Illinois state constitution to permit it.

It’s true the B-word has entered UK local government discourse in recent months – in relation, as it happens, to what in population terms are our largest (Birmingham) and smallest (West Somerset) principal councils.  But here it’s used actually or effectively in quotation marks, signalling unusual usage, and indeed signalling is what the recourse to the B-word is mainly about: signalling – to these councils’ residents and taxpayers, but above all to government ministers – that they’re getting close to being unable to meet their legal obligations with the funding foreseeably available to them.

They are not signalling that, to take Chicago’s case, they have approaching $30 billion of unfunded pension liabilities, a now junk-approaching credit rating, and that they’ve managed to set a 2014 general budget with a shortfall of only $339 million. There are several ways in which municipal bankruptcy has a different meaning and different connotations this side of the pond, not least of which is that little clause in successive Local Government Acts requiring local authorities to set their council tax at a level that will balance the budget. US municipalities can and do set deficit budgets, some of them year after year.

Anyway, this bankruptcy stuff meant I was probably at least subconsciously on the lookout for particularly American words and usages – the two countries separated by a common language idea – when I happened upon SCOFFLAW. It’s not remotely a neologism, its meaning is quite easily guessable, and you may well be familiar with it yourself. But, until it crossed my path in three entirely different situations in the space of a few days, I wasn’t.

It originated in the Prohibition era, as a label for someone who literally scoffed at the law and illegally drank, sold or manufactured alcohol.  It’s since been extended to anyone who flouts any law, but it remains very much an Americanism. Indeed, it may be that its widespread usage is concentrated around the Chicago area, because my first sighting was the Scofflaw bar/restaurant in Logan Square, near to where I was staying in Lincoln Park.  Not, disappointingly, as edgy as it sounds. Unless there’s a local ordinance outlawing tractor seat barstools or menus containing exceptionally weird cocktails, chocolate chip cookies, and Brussels sprouts, the name must refer more to historic than present-day custom and practice.

There was no doubt, though, in my second encounter, a couple of days later. State Governor, Pat Quinn, was there on my TV, explaining his new law allowing the Illinois Tollway to post public lists naming and shaming the ‘Top Toll Scofflaws’ and the amount of fines and unpaid tolls owed by each violator.

It’s to such traffic law violations and similar comparatively minor offences that the scofflaw tag seems mainly applied nowadays – but clearly not exclusively.  For, immediately upon returning home, I heard a US diplomat explain on Radio 4’s The World Tonight how, if President Obama were to launch a military attack on Syria without Congressional and/or UN authorisation, it would not only constitute an impeachable offence, but “would bolster the already widely held view that America is a scofflaw nation that acts impetuously and unilaterally outside the framework of international law”. You can see his point: first you’re defying liquor laws, then evading traffic fines, and, before you know it, you’re attacking Syria.

Another word you hear much more of in Chicago City government than over here is perhaps more surprising: ALDERMAN – an office that, except for the City of London, we abolished in the 1970s. Chicago, however, is, one of several US cities that retains them and so, a little oddly, has a 50-member legislative city council comprising entirely elected aldermen (unlike ours, who were indirectly elected) – and that includes the 16 women, who presumably feel they have better things to do than argue about whether they should be alderwomen or even alderpersons.

They almost certainly do, for the contrast between the range of the actual and potential powers of Chicago aldermen and those of the 120 members of Birmingham City Council – with which Chicago is twinned – is hard to overstate. First, some numbers.  The US has nearly 39,000 ‘general purpose’ local governments, compared to the UK’s 434 principal local authorities – but its council memberships are much smaller. While Birmingham’s councillors represent wards with populations averaging 27,000, making them the largest in the country, Chicago’s aldermen represent districts of roughly 57,000, which are easily the smallest of any major US city. New York’s 51 city councillors represent an average of 165,000; Los Angeles’ 15 councillors over 250,000.

As large-scale representatives, but even more so as legislators, Chicago’s aldermen are far better financially compensated and administratively supported than our councillors: an average salary of around $115,000 (£74,000); a staffing budget of some $200,000, to employ typically a chief of staff, a couple of ward services staff, plus maybe a receptionist and a ‘scheduler’; and an additional general office budget of $75,000. And yes, there is a ‘Better Government Association’ that, like our TaxPayers’ Alliance, monitors all this and campaigns for the council to be cut by up to a half.

In truth, though, for aldermen to perform effectively even their legislative role, there would need to be more, rather than fewer, of them, with better, rather than reduced, support. Since Rahm Emanuel became mayor in May 2011, there have been around 30,000 measures introduced to the City Council. Even taking only the 2,000+ proposals flagged by the City Clerk’s office as ‘key’ legislation with a city-wide impact, aldermen lack the time, staff and expertise either to contribute significantly to the shaping of these measures or to scrutinise their implementation.

In practice, then, the mayor drives the city-wide agenda, largely unchallenged, but leaves the aldermen a similarly free rein – in fact, almost a free reign – over what happens in their wards. I noted recently in another blog how US municipalities’ zoning powers enabled them to limit the spread of payday loan stores in a way that many of our councils would like to. Well, in Chicago – far more, I believe, than in most cities – that power is exercised as a kind of unwritten aldermanic prerogative, with the alderman having almost a de facto veto power over any development project in their ward. Which pretty obviously, even without all their other powers, makes them both extremely influential, but also potentially extremely influenceable – and brings us back where we started, to scofflaws.


Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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